We took the train up from Dublin to Belfast, a two-hour trip through the countryside although most of the fields of sheep and cattle were hidden by the berms on both sides of the tracks. My first impression of Belfast was a modern, vibrant walking city with beautiful architecture and friendly helpful people. There were lots of cranes in and around the town centre, trendy shops and restaurants, bustling pedestrian streets. We had dinner at McHugh’s, an old Irish pub, one of several that claimed to be the oldest in the city.
The next morning we took a two-hour walking tour, dramatically called “A History of Terror”, about what are euphemistically known as The Troubles, a thirty year period of conflict (1968-1998) in Northern Ireland between nationalists (Irish, Catholic) and unionists (British, Protestant). It was an interesting tour of some of the actual sites where bombings and killings occurred in the town centre, along with an even-sided history of how the struggle unfolded. A couple of things stood out for me. One was the complexity of the issues and responses, augmented by the role of the police and military. The other was the impact on the civilians – almost two thousand died. Those who survived had their daily lives and freedoms radically altered.
The impact on us was powerful. We spent the following day walking the neighbourhoods outside of the main tourist areas, trying to get a firsthand picture of what we had learned. We noticed several examples of the residue of the sectarian war. There remain, twenty years later, most of the one hundred “peace walls” erected to segregate warring neighbours. In some areas, gates have been opened to allow access and integration but the border structures are still there. We toured the Falls Road peace wall, a kilometer-long concrete and wire barrier covered with one of the many murals we saw in the city dedicated to the implications of the conflict. We also visited memorial gardens on both sides listing names of the fallen among the trees and shrubs. I thought about how the sanctity of home had been violated for everyone involved.
I came away somewhat disturbed by the dissonance. The modern redevelopment of the city core creates a fresh and forward-looking image. Behind the façade, though, signs of the lingering emotional effects are everywhere.